Those who bemoan losing Chris Rock the stand-up comic to the cries of box office flops should get themselves to a cinema and actually see Top Five, a film starring, directed and written by Rock. Though stand-up comedy cannot be beaten in its ability to make an audience directly relate and give the comedian immediate satisfaction, when a comic the calibre of Chris Rock makes a movie, there’s a good chance it’s going to be just as funny. ‘Funny’, after all, is in the tears of the laugher.
Rock stars as Andre Allen, a stand-up comedian trying to make it big as an actor. To Allen’s annoyance, he is mainly known for Hammy, the Bear a franchise of films he stars in as a smart-talking cop in a bear suit. To add to the hilarity that must ensue, Allen is trying to promote his first serious movie (about the Haitian revolution that saw 50,000 white French colonists killed) and his wedding to reality TV star Erica Long (played by Gabrielle Union) is a day away.
Allen unknowingly finds sanctuary in New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), who is spending the day with Allen to write an in-depth article. Amongst the amusement of the on-screen action and Allen’s encounters with ‘his people’ (both professional and family), it is his scenes talking one-on-one with Brown that grounds the film in Rock’s observational comedy. Cameos from comedy greats like Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Cedric the Entertainer and half the new cast of Saturday Night Live aside, the film effectively strays from purely being ‘bit’ heavy because of this running story.
Casting himself as the lone comedian amongst the lunacy of his surroundings, the smooth loosely based character transition enables Rock to still take his trademark pot-shots. Our new ‘reality star’ driven media is a target as well as the movie publicity machine. Though, outside of the craziness of Allen’s world, he finds himself walking with Chelsea Brown around New York City, talking, among many things, about his top five rappers. These quiet moments amongst the noise are what will distinguish Rock as filmmaker in future; hopefully becomes a trademark of Rocks future film efforts.
Allen’s Hammy film franchise is a clear poke at the never-ending frustration suffered by comedians of an audience hungry for their ‘earlier, funnier work’. This was satirised perfectly in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, and Rock, clearly influenced by Woody as much as he worshipped Richard Pryor, is at ease reacting to the absurdity around him onscreen with equal amounts of awkward disgust and attitude.
As a stand-up, Rock is the self-appointed ‘Born Suspect’, and perpetual outsider. It is not surprising then that Top Five, while being traditionally funny, manages to be just as subversive. This is another effective use of the Chelsea Brown character, who converses with Allen after radio show visits, where he is pressed to record promotional material ‘with some stank on it’, and during visits to his extended family, where he is then pressed for favours and money. It is through her character that the audience can find that direct relatability Rock would usually offer in his stand-up.
The circumstances of Allen’s life aren’t what is funny, it is the social, celebrity and economic pressures he can’t possibly endure that we laugh at. And in a maddening way, we know how easy it could be to reach breaking point. We just aren’t Allen, having the day that Allen is.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10